Blake's strike points the way

Norwegians' late equaliser curtails optimism of Hughes as Wales finally stumble out of the starting blocks
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The Independent Online

The road to the World Cup Finals remains long and uninviting for Wales who, having forced themselves in front through a spectacular header from Nathan Blake, were unable to protect their advantage and have now forfeited five points from their first two fixtures in Group 5.

The road to the World Cup Finals remains long and uninviting for Wales who, having forced themselves in front through a spectacular header from Nathan Blake, were unable to protect their advantage and have now forfeited five points from their first two fixtures in Group 5.

It was a goal struck with awesome power and accuracy from the Blackburn striker from a range of 18 yards after Gary Speed had picked him out with a sweeping left-wing cross and it deserved to be the decisive moment in the match. Moreover, in Paul Jones, Wales appeared to have the goalkeeper who could usher them safely through the final 30minutes.

So adept had Jones been in denying Norway three first- half opportunities that the visitors' spirits sank visibly after the interval. Then, with nine minutes remaining, Jones could only parry a snap effort from Oyvind Leonhardsen straight to the waiting Thorstein Helstad, a substitute introduced just two minutes previously. With his first attempt, the tall Scandinavian struck the base of a post and as Jones desperately tried to recover his ground, Helstad rolled the ball over the line.

The intriguing possibility beforehand was that Norway could outnumber the home side in current Premiership personnel, but in the event Wales won that contest 6-5 with Mark Delaney boosting their number even though a knee injury has prevented him sampling any League football with Aston Villa this season.

Norway, who themselves had started limply in the group with a scoreless draw at home to the supposed makeweights, Armenia, left Tore Andre Flo on the bench and operated with just Ole Gunnar Solskjaer through the middle, though support was quickly at hand from Steffen Iversen down the right and Roar Strand down the left, and Norway would not have been unhappy with the amount of possession they enjoyed in the opening period.

Mark Hughes included John Hartson for the first time in 12 months, and with Blake starting alongside him, the Welsh method would clearly owe more to brawn than brain.

With Ryan Giggs hovering dangerously around them, the potential for something out of the ordinary to happen was always alive. Sometimes he dropped back into midfield to hunt for possession, then he moved up to form a three-pronged attack.

All three combined in the ninth minute, but having jinked his way past one defender, Giggs then found Christer Basma in the way.

It was hard going for Delaney to reacquaint himself with football at this level, and a rash foul close to the byline hinted at trouble for Wales.

The free kick found Henning Berg rising to meet the ball and direct a header down into the ground. Fortunately for Wales, Jones was wholly alert to it, flinging up an arm to deflect the ball over.

Wales responded aggressively with a sharp tackle by Delaney deep in Norway territory. The ball was spilled out for Hartson, who fed Giggs down the right, the Welsh talisman returning the favour with a low pass into the area where Hartson had advanced. It was a clear sight of goal for the Wimbledon man but his effort screwed wide.

Norway enjoyed a good spell just past the half-hour and would have taken the lead were it not for Jones' ability to rise to the occasion. The off-side game collapsed in front of him as Solskjaer strode away on to a Strand pass and while Robert Page effected a timely challenge, the ball dropped nicely for the Manchester United predator a second time. Out came Jones to spread himself and Wales breathed again.

Not for long, however, as a header from Chris Coleman fell only as far as Solskjaer, who fed Leonhardsen with a delicate through-ball. It was another glorious opportunity and as Jones once more rushed out to snuff out the danger it was hard not to wonder how long his resistance could hold.

Next it was Wales' turn to threaten, with a sweeping pass from Blake opening up possibilities for Giggs. He cut inside on to his favoured left boot but, agonisingly for the Millennium Stadium crowd, he was fractionally wide of an upright.

Within 60 seconds Giggs was putting height on the ball from the right flank and although Hartson put his header away, he had strayed offside.

Norway teetered after Blake's towering effort and there were opportunities for Wales to finish them off. For a brief spell they rampaged through a now hesitant rearguard and when the next attack led to a Blake cross from the right, Giggs was just off-target as he nodded towards goal.

Of course Wales needed those roles to be reversed, and a more orthodox forward movement saw Giggs centring from the left. Hartson was the target, but he was stretching at the far post and could not discover enough power to extend Frode Olsen.

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